The yellow gravel path begins to slope more sharply as I walk further away from the castle. Ahead of me are the nine mellowed brick arches cut into the ancient walls of the Monks Garden. They lean down the gentle incline and frame the views into this peaceful ancient space.
This particular garden is old and records exist for it certainly from 1,200AD although it is likely it was built a little earlier. The walls enclosed the garden and protected fruit trees and probably a physic garden from errant wildlife. We have a list from 1216 of 61 apple and pear trees planted there – probably more diversity in varieties than we see today in the fruit trees in our gardens or the fruit we can buy in sundry supermarkets.
Two hundred years ago, this practical “working” garden was then transformed by the 2nd Earl of Carnarvon into an Italianate style ornamental garden after a new much larger kitchen garden was built elsewhere.
Today the Monk’s Garden pays homage to both styles. The symmetrical arches in both the brick wall and the yew hedges point to a garden of leisure but the fruit trees (medlars, crab apples and figs) around the walls recall the earlier purpose.
Central in two of the lawned quadrants are two of my favourite trees: mulberry trees. These are large and gnarled but there is a more compact species too so it is in fact a good genus for most gardens. These are the variety morus nigra which produce fruit. Shaped like a long raspberry, the fruits starts as a pale watery colour with red tints before darkening to a deep black red.
Over August I begin to check them regularly, trying them just to see if they are nearly there. They need to be ripe, black and perfectly squidgy with an edge of tartness:utterly delicious. If you look them up, they are also very healthy with vitamins K,C A and E and are an excellent source of iron as well potassium and magnesium. Raw mulberries are 88% water so they can splodge over the ground and your clothes with tremendous ease but as well as being eaten straight from the tree, they can be used in pies, tarts, cordials, and herbal teas. They also make lovely jam.
Mulberries have been prized since Roman times and were part of medieval herbal remedies so it is possible that there there were mulberry trees planted in here from the beginning.
This mulberry fruit tree is very different from the white mulberry-(Morus alba) which has been cultivated over millennia for silkworm production. Originally from China, this was even more highly prized and the silk trade contributed to the wealth and beauty of several empires. The Roman poet Virgil called it “L’arbre D’or,” or tree of gold, because of its usefulness for food, medicine and presumably silk making. The silk worms feed on Morus alba leaves and the silk threads are harvested from the cocoons spun by their larvae.
Four hundred years ago the French king required great groves of the trees to be planted. To provide for the french court. It was also tried in England but less successfully as the trees were decimated by frost. Even today Britain is usually too cold for mulberry trees to survive. Instead, Britain focused on sheep and wool – there are still plenty of sheep at Highclere as there have been for millennia.